Monday, August 3, 2009

Dear August

Closer to Idaho than you might expect is the remote lake community of Wallowa, OR, proudly self-proclaimed “the Switzerland of America” (?). We went there once, summers ago, for a family reunion with my father’s family, and Dad—the poor man—had such difficulty spitting out the name. “We’re going to Lake W-wall-aw-wa with the Wheelers." (Dad might not not be able to manage Wallowa or parmesan, but the man can nail a Scandinavian accent in some of the most absurd ways.) Once we had procured the necessary quantity of road food items, we packed up the station wagon and the car-top carrier (yes, we're that sort of family) and trekked south to a politically conflated, phonetically temperamental retreat town west of Hells Canyon.

What we found there was a startling landscape of blue mountains rising over the lake and evergreens, our hotel nestled into the woods like an ornament on a tree. (I've never been to Switzerland, but--allegedly--I don't have to now.) The timber siding was rough and stained, and inside there was a great room, with couches near a hearth. The winding pine stairs led to subsequent levels, revealing dim hallways to rooms reminiscent of the Wild West. This was my first experience with footed bathtubs and windows without screens, and it’s safe to say I was out of my mind thrilled. By this time, I’m sure, I had read a lot of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I probably figured I was residing in a version of the House of the Seven Gables that existed within a town second cousin to Sleepy Hollow. I was the kid who could never quite distinguish between real life and Narnia. My world was intrinsically tethered to the stuff of books and imagination. (Also, TV and movies, which sometimes made things harder on me: I was convinced until an altogether embarrassing age that Roger Radcliffe, Anita, Pongo, Perdita, and all the others lived normal lives when the cameras stopped rolling on the set of 101 Dalmations, the 1961 Disney animated version.)

Maybe because of the chances we get to run away to places like Lake Wallowa, everybody puts together their summer reading list, as though summer is a season that magically affords us more time to read. It doesn't, at least not in quantities that would necessitate the practice of lists--unless you have a career in education or someplace like the INN Ministries, where I will be starting as an intern come September. And because this new job begins a full three weeks before I've grown accustomed to my summer ending, I am realizing that my summer reading list of fiction--ambition at its best--was doomed from the start. Let's look at it, shall we? (Note: titles in bold are those I have actually read thus far.)

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
How to Be Good – Nick Hornby
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
The History of Danish Dreams – Peter Hoeg
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman
Wickett’s Remedy – Myla Goldberg
So Brave, Young, & Handsome – Leif Enger*
Nighttime is My Time – Mary Higgins Clark*
A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby*
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano
The Brothers K – David James Duncan
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson

Now, when you factor in the required reading for my internship:
In the Name of Jesus – Henri J.M. Nouwen
Stone Crossings – L.L. Barkat
The Reason for God – Timothy Keller*

And the other books I flirted with on the side:
Where’s Your Jesus Now? – Karen Spears Zacharias
Angry Conversations with God – Susan E. Isaacs*
Blessing of the Animals -- Brenda Miller
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It -- Maile Meloy

It's really no wonder I'll only manage about half what I hoped to before the end of August. Now, summer isn't over, and I do intend (denoted by *) to read the remaining novels by Enger, Clark, and Hornby, along with Keller's and Isaacs's nonfiction. But I look at the titles left over, ones that I really hoped to read (The Brothers K, American Gods, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and wonder when I might actually read them. There are always new books I'm finding, authors I'm falling in and out of love with. I know myself, well, and can claim no fidelity to any of the works queued here. My reading list is a living document, so I am quite certain that more of these than not will go entirely unread by me.

The weekend we spent at Lake Wallowa was one in August almost a decade ago. The days were hot, and my brother and I explored a creek bed in the forest behind the hotel. There I came mere feet from a full-grown buck, faced with the question, If I make a sudden move, will this beast run away, or will it maim me? The nights were balmy, full of games and laughter and the curious smell of liquor. Meanwhile, I probably read one of Kevin J. Anderson's blessings on the Star Wars franchise, the Young Jedi Knights series (junior high: it was an awkward age for everyone). As our trip drew to a close, I, like many a Garrison Keillor fan, was woebegone. I knew I could not yet be satisfied by such an enchanted place. I had bathed like a gunslinger. I had stood face to snout with my own mortality at the hands of a menacing woodland creature, and nature had turned its funny white tail and bolted. Today I feel just like I did packing up the rustic hotel room I shared with my brother that summer, stuffing titles back in a bag for a later time, with full knowledge I might never return.


L.L. Barkat said...

Oh shoot. I was *required* reading? :)

huysmantrophy said...

brothers k is one of the best books ever. save it for when you don't feel rushed. also, our book lists seem to overlap :) except i just put mine on my blog when i've already read it, so i feel better about myself. maybe i should try your tactic to get more reading in...

TA Z. said...

An absolutely beautiful post, Dave. There is something about your prose that is very difficult to describe. It is conversational to the point of almost being audible; one can hear voice when reading your words.

Thank you for distracting me from my reading list (which can be found at the link below) and letting me hear about yours.

My list:


P.S. You really must read American Gods, but I am biased because I recently designed a syllabus around it.

Cynthia Mathai said...


Coincidentally, I just got back from Switzerland. Two summers ago I was in Wallowa Lake, and though I agree with you that it is gorgeous, I would definitely still recommend a visit to Switzerland. Now that is a land that will literally leave you speechless at every turn! My favorite country thus far!